There’s a burden resting on the broad shoulders of this man who’s bopping
his head to a funky beat, tongue out in a soulful pout, enjoying himself
before launching into the next segue.
Tavis Smiley is at a studio mike, grooving to bumper music between
from NPR’s Washington headquarters instead of his Los Angeles digs,
because he’s in town for the Public Radio Conference.
Smiley has polished off a double interview about U.S. policy on Cuba.
Coming up, he’ll elicit a string of outrageous jokes from comedian Dick
Gregory in a comedy feature that’s a regular part of his Friday shows.
“Back by popular demand, Dick Gregory,” he reads in a practice run,
then pauses. “What about ‘black by popular demand?'” he asks his producers, then goes with the improvisation. He’s always trying to strike a balance between “authentically black,” as he calls it, and too black.
This is another day in the life of The Tavis Smiley Show, NPR’s
newest weekdaily news-talk offering and a program that tries to juggle
two distinct goals. First, it tries to give the system’s African-American
stations inroads as providers of news, which their listeners want but
often find elsewhere.
At the same time, Smiley and NPR want to place the show on general-audience
stations, where there are larger audiences to hook. That means listeners
who aren’t black have to find a reason to tune into Tavis.
As carriage rises — he’s on 27 stations and counting —
can Smiley deliver by changing the color of mainstream public radio,
which blacks sometimes scorn or simply ignore because it sounds too
Smiley, who is nothing if not motivated, is going to try. “The whole
nature of what public radio is is being challenged by this show,”
he says. “And the whole issue of who public radio should be serving
is being challenged.”
Not the ‘anti-Rush’
No one wants to confine Smiley to just African-American stations, but
the show launched Jan. 7 in an effort to boost their audiences, membership
and underwriting dollars. Their wish to have their own drivetime powerhouse
of a show brought Smiley to the air in the first place.
They started planning Tavis almost two years ago, in September
2000, when leaders from public radio’s 35 black stations began discussing
their needs with NPR. Most of the stations aired music in the morning,
but their listeners tuned away during drivetime to hear popular fare
on urban commercial stations such as The Tom Joyner Morning Show.
They hatched an idea for their own morning show, and then, “you
could call it luck or you could call it providence, but Tavis became
available,” says consultant Loretta Rucker, who helped shepherd Tavis
to air. (Like almost everyone who knows Smiley, Rucker calls him just
Smiley hosted Black Entertainment Television’s BET Tonight
until BET Chairman Robert Johnson fired him. Johnson said he dropped
Smiley for selling an interview to another network before offering it
to BET, though Smiley says personal politics was the real reason.
While hosting BET, Smiley found time to appear elsewhere, including
CNN, C-SPAN, ABC and Tom Joyner. His prominence gave African-American
stations hope that their listeners would follow him to their airwaves.
Smiley remembers media offers covered his desk after the firing,
but NPR’s stood out. He takes a liberal stance on many issues and says
commercial radio would have insisted on turning him into “the anti-Rush”
“But I don’t just want to read Democratic National Committee press
releases,” he says.
Black voices on all subjects
After six months on the air, Tavis has rhythm and purpose.
Smiley’s large Rolodex of newsmakers is in evidence — he’s broken
exclusive interviews with Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Cornel West,
who appeared on Tavis’s debut show to discuss his quarrels with Harvard
University President Lawrence Summers.
The show also highlights Smiley’s irreverent personality, distinguishing
it from other NPR fare. Smiley recently interviewed Alexis Scott, a
former diversity director at Cox Enterprises, who left general-audience
media to return to a black newspaper in Atlanta founded by her grandfather.
Summarizing her story, Smiley said, “You gave up a whole lot with
them white folk at Cox to go back down to the ‘hood with the Atlanta
“Yes, Tavis, you put it so colorfully,” Scott said, laughing.
“I’m just tryin’ to keep it real, Alexis!” he replied.
Closing the interview, he said, “Let me just say — you go, girl!”
Every Friday, Smiley talks with a comedian to give listeners a
laugh as they start their weekends, he says. He also airs practical
advice on topics such as nutrition and money management, he says, because
he places a premium on empowering listeners while informing them.
NPR has other prominent black voices, but Smiley devotes an unprecedented
amount of attention to black life in America, touching on music, comedy,
politics, religion and more.
The diversity of perspectives isn’t limited to the subjects Smiley
covers, but includes the guests who talk about them, Rucker says. Smiley’s
interview with Rep. Alcee Hastings, who is African-American, about the
power of the Bush administration during wartime offered a different
view than an interview with Sen. Tom Daschle would have.
“The point here is that it’s not only race-based issues that get a
different treatment — it’s nearly all issues,” she says.
“An enlightened white American could host this show every day, so long
as he or she opens up the airwaves to a diversity of voices,” Smiley
says. “That just doesn’t happen enough.”
As always, Smiley has multiple deals cooking, including a half-hour
TV talk show to be launched by Disney’s Buena Vista this fall. His NPR
show rouses him from bed at 2:30 a.m. Los Angeles time to tape the show
at its 4 a.m. feed. That means he sleeps four hours a night and, on
a good day, takes a three-hour nap. Some wonder if Smiley’s hectic schedule
could weaken his commitment to his NPR show — speculation he dismisses.
Playing to all listeners
African-American stations report that, for them, the show fits the
bill. Ratings data are scant to date. But Wendy Williams, g.m. of WCLK
in Atlanta, says listeners stay with her station after the morning gospel
broadcast rather than tune to Joyner, now that Smiley fills the 7 a.m.
“One of the reasons is that they want to hear what Tavis has to say,”
she says. “For many listeners, Tavis is a name that is widely recognized.”
Maxie C. Jackson III, g.m. of WEAA in Baltimore, says listening in
Smiley’s slot has risen as much as 30 percent over a year ago. “It’s
appointment listening,” he says. “Listeners say they’re completely committed
to the program with respect to how they orient their day.”
Half the stations carrying Smiley target black listeners, but the other half — including
Seattle’s KUOW and Philadelphia’s WHYY — have a broader aim. That’s always
been part of the plan. Smiley devotes much of his show to black issues
but also tackles subjects outside that sphere. And besides, who says
white listeners don’t want to know about being black in America?
Tavis is meant to use intellectual appeal and strong production
values to appeal to all listeners, Rucker says, but educate them at
the same time.
“Oftentimes, white people don’t have the benefit of knowing the other
side,” she says. “The significance for me is that this show will help
to inform the larger population in a way that could truly affect and
benefit their view of what’s happening in our society.”
Jeff Hansen, p.d. at KUOW, noted that potential and slid Smiley into
his peak drivetime slot of 3 p.m. At first, he says, he thought it was
a “black show” that might turn off his mostly white audience. But listening
changed his mind, and he says Smiley offers a chance to break up its
sound, which he says is defined too often by the voices of white men.
“To assume that our listeners wouldn’t like this show is also to assume
that our listeners wouldn’t like anything new, and that’s an incorrect
assumption,” he says.
Though Smiley came to the airwaves via African-American stations, black
GMs welcome the chance for his crossover appeal to reshape the system.
“We are really at a pivotal moment in public radio’s audience growth,”
Jackson says. “That’s a challenge to the general-audience stations to
wake up and smell the coffee. America’s changing.”